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Academic Publishing: How It Works and Why

An introduction to the industry of academic publishing, how it came to be, and how it works now.

The Record of Research

The scientific article has essentially become the only way science is systematically represented in the world. … If you control access to the scientific literature, it is, to all intents and purposes, like controlling science. (Buranyi, 2017)

Academic publishing across all fields dictates the progress of a discipline and the current state of the work in that discipline. Academics who hope to achieve tenure and build a reputation in their field must, to some extent at least, follow the practices of publishing as a necessary component of publicizing the work that they do and becoming known for it. The control that the industry of academic publishing has on the work being published comes out of a long history of academics sharing their research and how the process became commercialized. If you do or hope to publish your research, it is useful to know how the process works so you'll be best prepared when the time comes.


Academic Publishing Through History


17th and 18th centuries: Establishment

  • First journal: Journal des Sçavans, France, January 5, 1665 (image source: Wikimedia; public domain)
    • Prototype for journals to come in 17th and 18th centuries (Regazzi, 2015, p. 24)
    • Journal des Savants: successor of Journal des Sçavans (1797-present)
  • Royal Society of London for the Improvement of Natural Knowledge (1660)
    • Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, March 6, 1665
    • Established priority and ownership of scientific discoveries and a way to archive them (Regazzi, 2015, p. 25)
    • Developed peer-review process
    • Now published as two journals: Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A and Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B (1886-present)

18th through early 20th centuries: Institutionalization

  • Growth of more specialized journals
    • Chemisches Journal für die Freunde der Naturlehre, Arzneygelahrtheit, Haushaltungskunst und Manufacturen, 1778-1781, chemistry (German but published in Latin (Regazzi, 2015, pp. 26-27)), followed by many more
  • Better printing methods (image: Koenig's 1814 steam-powered printing press. Source: Wikimedia; public domain)Koenig's 1814 steam-powered printing press (Wikimedia)
  • Abstracts and author/subject indexing for better classification
  • University presses are established; start publishing more than scholarly societies
    • Johns Hopkins University, 1878
      • American Journal of Mathematics, 1878
    • University of Chicago, 1891
    • University of California, 1893
    • Columbia University, 1893
  • Research takes time, publishing happens eventually

World War II and Postwar: Commercialization

  • Growth of scholarly publishing and funding
    • Scholarly societies can’t keep up
  • WWII and postwar: Great increase in government-funded research in US and UK
    • National Science Foundation founded in 1950 = academic research boom
  • Academic journals: primary means of publishing scholarly communication
    • Business partnerships between scholarly and university presses and commercial publishers
      • Butterworth’s + Springer = Pergamon Press (now owned by Elsevier)
        • New discipline? New journal!
        • 1959: 40 journals; 1965: 150 (Buranyi, 2017)
    • Business boomed in the 1960s and 1970s, journal prices rose, university libraries foot the bill
  • Tracking impact, bibliometrics

Late 20th through early 21st centuries: Digitalization

  • 1970s: Electronic publishing and archiving
    • First electronic journal published 1979 (one-time experiment)
  • 1990s: Electronic peer-reviewed academic journals founded in universities
  • Captive audience, flatlining budgets, “Big Deals” (prepackaged sets of journals that supposedly saved the libraries money in subscription fees)
  • Open access - WikipediaOpen Access: “permanent, free online access to the full text of all refereed research journal articles” (quoted in Regazzi, 2015, p. 31; lock icon: public domain)
    • 1999: Open Archives Initiative develops interoperability standards
    • 2001: First e-print archive
    • 2001: Budapest Open Access Initiati
    • 2003: Berlin Declaration on Open Access
    • 2008: National Institutes of Health Public Access Mandate
    • 2013: Office of Science and Technology Memo: "Increasing Access to the Results of Federally Funded Scientific Research"
    • 2022: Office of Science and Technology Memo "Ensuring Free, Immediate, and Equitable Access to Federally Funded Research"


Where We Are Today



Informal survey of bibliometric data from 2018 (Scopus, owned by Elsevier): 2.08 articles published internationally in 2018

Most papers published by very few commercial publishers
  • Elsevier, Taylor & Francis, Wiley-Blackwell: published 41% of all papers in the Social Sciences and Humanities in 2013 (Larivière et al., 2015, p. 3-5)
  • Elsevier, Wiley-Blackwell, Springer Nature: published 47% of all papers in Natural and Medical Sciences in 2013 (Larivière et al., 2015, p. 3-5)
  • Also in the top 5 of academic publishers: Sage Publishing and ACS
  • Elsevier in 2018 (as per the RELX Annual Report 2018):
    • 1.8m articles submitted
    • 470,000 articles published
    • 2,500 journals managed by more than 20,000 editors
    • 9 new subscription and 45 full open access journals
    • 18% of the world’s scientific articles


  • For-profit publishing + researcher need to publish in high-impact journal = emphasis on exciting and positive, no attention paid to quotidian and negative
  • Monopoly on research: “one article cannot substitute for another” (Buranyi, 2017)
  • More articles published = greater rate of retraction (
  • Researchers trading copyright for convenience
  • Piracy: prohibitive access costs lead to greater piracy of academic research, both domestically and internationally